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November 16, 2005

Pill Popping Friends Regulate Minds Together

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Today's NYTimes had an truthful article on the growth and trade of prescription drugs among friends.

The article "Young, Assured and Playing Pharmacist to Friends" nailed a very real trend stating,

"For a sizable group of people in their 20's and 30's, deciding on their own what drugs to take - in particular stimulants, antidepressants and other psychiatric medications - is becoming the norm...The behavior, drug abuse prevention experts say, is notably different from the use of drugs like marijuana or cocaine, or even the abuse of prescription pain killers, which is also on the rise.

The goal of many young adults in not to get high but to feel better - less depressed, less stressed out, more focused, better rested. It is just seems that the easiest route to that end often seems to be medication for which they do not have a prescription. Some seek to regulate every minor mood fluctuation, some want to enhance their performance at school or work, some simply want to find the best drug to treat a genuine illness."

drugs_prozac_cartoon.pngThe article goes on to cite some important statistics like prescriptions to treat attention deficit disorder in adults age 20 to 30 nearly tripled from 2000 to 2004 and 14% of students at a Midwestern liberal arts college reported borrowing or buying prescription stimulants from each other, and that 44% knew of someone who did.

My own research suggests the practice is even more widespread. After a recent talk I gave at an ivy league college, I had a chance to speak with some professors who had recently performed their own blind class surveys on the use of "neurocognitive enhancers" (i.e. stimulants) in their undergraduate classes and the number of students that had reported using them at some time was north of 60%, with 80% suggesting that they knew someone who did.

Despite the warnings and potentially life threatening side effects of this practice I expect that it will only grow as treatments with fewer side effects continue to reach the market. Like it or not, cosmetic neurology, or the shaping of one's perception with neurotechnology, is but one of the social issues humans are beginning to grapple with in our emerging neurosociety. So where is the line between therapy and enhancement?

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Perception Shift

September 14, 2005

Chinese Forest or American Tree

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Cultural differences appear to exist between how Chinese and Americans perceive and remember visual stimuli. New research conducted by Richard Nisbett, a social psychologist and author of the Geography of Thought, has shown that Chinese and American students differ in the way they look at and remember a complex visual scene. Science summarized the experiment in the following way:

"Wearing headsets with a built-in eye movement tracker, 25 American and 27 Chinese graduate students were asked to observe 36 pictures -- each with an object against a realistic background. The Americans zoomed in on the foreground object earlier and for a longer time than did the Chinese who spent more time taking in the background and less time studying the object. The result, the Chinese tended to recall background more accurately, whereas Americans remember more about the central object."

This research could have interesting implications for how different neurotechnologies could impact cultures in unintended ways. But before we jump to any conclusions I'd like to see a larger study done that included young children to see how and when this behavior is emerges.

For those in the Philadelphia area, I'll be giving a talk on Monday at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at noon. Come discuss our emerging neurosociety with me and many others.

Comments (1) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Perception Shift

August 09, 2005

How Does Your Brain Decide?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Funded by the NIH, researchers at Johns Hopkins published an interesting paper in Neuron this week that adds to our growing understanding of visual organization at the level of neurons and how this impacts individual perception.

"The figure is famous (below): a deceptively simple line drawing that at first glance resembles a vase and, at the next, a pair of human faces in profile. When you look at this figure, your brain must rapidly decide what the various lines denote. Are they the outlines of the vase or the borders of two faces? How does your brain decide?

Rubins Vase.gif

It does so in a fraction of a second via special nerve circuits in the brain's visual center that automatically organize information into a "whole" even as an individual's gaze and attention are focused on only one part, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.

"Our paper answers the century-old question of the basis of subconscious processes in visual perception, specifically, the phenomenon of figure-ground organization," said Rudiger von der Heydt, a professor in the Zanvyl Krieger Mind-Brain Institute. "Early in the 20th century, the Gestalt psychologists postulated the existence of mechanisms that process visual information automatically and independently of what we know, think or expect. Since then, there has always been the question as to whether these mechanisms actually exist. They do. Our work suggests that the system continuously organizes the whole scene, even though we usually are attending only to a small part of it."

The report, based on recordings of nerve cells in the visual cortex of macaque monkeys, suggests that this automatic processing of images is repeated each time an individual looks at something new, usually three to four times per second. What's more, the brain provides what von der Heydt calls "a sophisticated program" to select and process the information that is relevant at any given moment."

Maybe this explains why ads on MTV are getting faster and faster.

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Perception Shift

February 25, 2005

Why Are Illusions Fascinating?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Why do inverted faces lose their emotional meaning? Why do certain types of motion induced blindness? How can a few dots on a screen seem meaningless, but once set in motion become easily recognizable biological creatures?

Everyone, from young children to my 94 year-old grandmother are fascinated by optical illusions. During the 20th century vision science has made significant progress thanks to CRT displays and digital programming. Still, current technologies have inherent limits. For more illusions and to understand the science behind them I highly recommend visiting this amazing website.

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January 25, 2005

NeoForum For Your Brain This Thursday Evening in Marin

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Posted by Zack Lynch

A recent article in LA Times informs us “The age of smart drugs is dawning.. and that these drugs may change the way we think and may even change who we are.” The fact that neurotechnology has profound societal implications will come as no surprise to regular readers. What is "news" is the increasing public awareness and discussion of the issues surrounding emerging neurotechnologies.

If you are in the SF/Bay Area and would like to join the discussion, come participate in a new public forum this Thursday in Marin where David Pescovitz, Will Block, Wrye Sententia, and myself will be sharing our thoughts and trying to answer your questions about our emerging neurosociety. The discussion will be led by moderator R.U. Sirius (Editor-in-chief of NeoFiles, author of multiple books including: Counterculture Through The Ages, Mondo 2000, and co-writer of Timothy Leary's last book, Design for Dying.

WHAT: NeoFiles Public Forum: Twenty First Century Brains
WHERE: Mill Valley Community Center, 180 Camino Alto, Mill Valley, CA
WHEN: 7:30 PM. Thursday, January 27
PRICE: $10 at door

Comments (0) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Perception Shift

June 01, 2004

Forget Regret?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

How do we feel about decisions when we are unsure of the possible consequences of our actions? A team of neuroscientists lead by Nathalie Camille has been researching this question for some time. Their most recent findings published recently in Science show that a particular region in the brain, the orbitofrontal cortex, has a fundamental role in mediating the experience of regret.

"Facing the consequence of a decision we made can trigger emotions like satisfaction, relief, or regret, which reflect our assessment of what was gained as compared to what would have been gained by making a different decision. These emotions are mediated by a cognitive process known as counterfactual thinking. By manipulating a simple gambling task, we characterized a subject's choices in terms of their anticipated and actual emotional impact. Normal subjects reported emotional responses consistent with counterfactual thinking; they chose to minimize future regret and learned from their emotional experience. Patients with orbitofrontal cortical lesions, however, did not report regret or anticipate negative consequences of their choices. The orbitofrontal cortex has a fundamental role in mediating the experience of regret. (see Science article, sub. required)

As neurotechnology advances and the precise neurobiology of regret emerges, will individuals choose to influence the magnitude of regret they feel? How might this impact personal relationships or how they perceive daily life? What if you could forget regret?

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May 13, 2004

Anxiety and Freedom

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Posted by Zack Lynch

"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom." -- Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1885)

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May 04, 2004

What if Lust was a Side Effect?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Today's NYTimes article, "Has the Romance Gone? Was it the Drug?" highlights a major problem with today's psychopharmaceuticals, side effects. "Up to 70 percent of patients on antidepressants report sexual side effects," the article reports. But the problem does not end there.

"We know that there are real sexual problems associated with serotonin-enhancing medications," said Dr. Helen Fisher, author of "Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love". "But when you cripple a person's sexual desire and arousal, you're also jeopardizing their ability to fall in love and to stay in love."

Dr. Fisher and a colleague, Dr. Anderson J. Thomson Jr., have studied the brains of people in love and pored over research from the last 25 years on the neurological basis of romance.

Three brain systems, all interrelated, the researchers say, control lust, attraction and attachment. Each runs on a different set of chemicals. Lust is fueled by androgens and estrogens. Attachment is controlled by oxytocin and vasopressin. And attraction, they say, is driven by high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, as well as low levels of serotonin. As a result, they say, increasing levels of serotonin with antidepressants can cripple the sex drive but also set off an imbalance among the three systems."

So how might we develop an anti-depressant that increases lust? Or is that even possible?

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Perception Shift

November 19, 2003

Can Science Explain Consciousness?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

What is consciousness? Is there a neurobiological basis for consciousness? Is conscious will an illusion? In early April, many of the world's leading consciousness researchers will gather in Tucson for four days to explore how science might be able to answer these elusive questions.

Tom Ray, in a plenary session with Alexander Shulgin and Franz Vollenweider, will share his thoughts on how mapping receptor space will lead to a clearer understanding of the chemical architecture of the mind and perhaps consciousness itself.

Other esteemed speakers include:
-David Chalmers, University of Arizona
-Anthony Freeman, Journal of Consciousness Studies
-Christof Koch, California Institute of Technology
-Marilyn Schlitz, Institute of Noetic Sciences
-Daniel Dennett, Tufts University
-Roger Penrose, Oxford University
-Steven Pinker, Harvard University
-Ned Block, NYU
-David Leopold, Max Plank Institute
-Janet Metcalfe, Columbia University
-Alva Noë, UC Santa Cruz
-Ron Rensink, UC Berkeley
-Wendy Shields, University of Minnesota
-Daniel Wegner, Harvard University

Topics to be discussed include:
--Neural Plasticity and Synesthesia
--Pathways of Visual Consciousness
--How do Hallucinogens Affect Consciousness?
--Is There Metacognition in Animals?
--Ethics and the Brain

(I can't wait for the discussion over the sticky neuroethical issue brought up by Richard Glen Boire on the Right to Erase One's Memory.

See you there.

Comments (13) | Category: Perception Shift

September 18, 2003

The paomnnehil pweor of the hmuan mnid

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.


The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm.


Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. amzanig huh?


thks johsau.


The Onion:  FDA Approves Sale of Prescription Placebo (Ha)

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August 08, 2003

Attention Please, May We Please Have Your Attention

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Posted by Steven

By Steven Johnson

One of the other personal insights that comes out of thinking about yourself through the lens of neuroscience is an increased awareness of the different mental states you cycle through in a given day. The general categories -- sleepy, alert, energetic, thoughtful -- break into more precise sub-categories, like the folkloric tales of Eskimos and their rich vocabulary for snow. Subtle shifts of attention and awareness seem more vivid, because you know something about the neurological changes behind them.


One way to appreciate these different states is to take any number of attention tests, designed to pinpoint your particular skills at the various subsystems that make up the macro category of attention. You have systems that specialize in "sustain": remaining focused on a single item for extended stretches of time; and systems dedicated to "encoding": transferring that incoming data to your working memory.  Each of the sensory inputs has its own channels as well: so you can be very skilled at visual encoding, but weak at auditory sustain. You can take tests to evaluate your skills at these and other attention tasks. Learning your strengths and weaknesses can help you compensate in the appropriate situations, at least until the neuroceuticals arrive to improve our weak links directly.

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August 06, 2003

What Were You Thinking?

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Posted by Steven

By Steven Johnson


This interview with Paul Ekman, the UCSF psychologist who has become something of a celebrity in the past few years, is a good place to start answering the question I posed in the previous entry: how does knowing something about the mind's inner workings change the way we think about ourselves as individuals?

Ekman is famous for proving the universality of the basic language of human facial expressions (a premise notoriously rejected by Margaret Mead many years ago). But he's also brought to light the subtleties of our expression-reading skills, our knack for detecting the micro-expressions that go beyond the basic palette of seven primary emotions. These skills are part of what some neuroscientists refer to as our "mindreading" system: the part of our brain that's constantly trying to guess what other people are thinking, using all the potential clues available to us, many of which take the form of subtle changes in the musculature of the face.

Mindreading is one of those topics where the "hominid" approach and the more personal, introspective approach nicely overlap. We're all innately talented mindreaders -- unless we're autistic, or suffer from some other comparable disorder. We don't go to school to learn to read facial expressions, even though they utilize an amazingly sophisticated symbolic system. But some of us are better mindreaders than others -- we're better at reading those split-second changes in facial expression or vocal intonation, and thus better at assessing the true meaning of another person's inner thoughts and feelings.

The more you learn about the science of mindreading, the more you find yourself dividing up your friends into two camps: the mindreaders and the mind-dyslexic. It's not a psychological filter that you carried around consciously before, the way you might have thought of certain friends as being extroverts, and others being repressed. But once you apply the filter, it has a revealing quality: you find yourself saying -- "That's why I always had such great conversations with her!" Or: "No wonder his jokes always fell flat."

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April 24, 2003

A Personal Perspective on Neurotechnology

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Steven Johnson has finally finished the draft of his latest book:


"It's a bit more first-person than Emergence. I personally take a number of tests, and scan my head with a number of different technologies, from neurofeedback to fMRI. I also talk a little about the way understanding something about the brain's inner reality has changed the way I approached various events in my life. The general idea is that modern brain science can be understood as an extension of what the great chroniclers of mental life -- novelists like James, or Woolf, or Joyce -- did in a literary form: helping you see your faculties of mind with a newfound clarity."


Make sure to check it out. 

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April 21, 2003

Body, Brain, and Mind

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Posted by Zack Lynch

By providing new tools to influence human emotion, cognition and sensory systems, neurotechnology will have profound consequences for how people perceive social, political and cultural problems. This is why studying the societal implications of neurotechnology is so critical, and so different from previous technological waves


In Looking for Spinoza, Antonio Damasio, details a theory that describes a chain reaction that begins when an emotion (defined as a change in body state in response to an external stimulus) triggers a feeling (the representation of that change in the brain as well as specific mental images). In other words, feelings do not cause bodily symptoms but are caused by them: we do not tremble because we feel afraid; we feel afraid because we tremble.


By directly influencing the neurochemistry of our central nervous systems, i.e. reducing our bodies reactivity to trembling, via sensoceuticals, we in fact influence our minds conception/self-reflection of our selves and our environment. 

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